The new structure of minor league baseball is now official.
As of Feb. 12, Major League Baseball has received all 120 signed Professional Development Licenses (PDLs). That means every team it invited to be part of its new player development system has agreed to terms and is now part of Major League Baseball’s new player development system.
That means the most significant change to minor league baseball in more than a century is now complete. From 1903-2020, Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball operated as separate entities that worked together through a mutual agreement. Minor league teams joined leagues and those leagues were the members of Minor League Baseball.
All of that has now changed. Major League Baseball is now in charge of all affiliated minor league baseball. They have directly contracted with the minor league teams themselves, eliminating league offices and Minor League Baseball from the process.
All the new PDLs have 10-year terms, meaning that the shape of the minors and affiliates is now largely set for the next decade. There are possibilities that some teams could change cities before 2031—the facility standards have a provision for moving a team if the stadium is not upgraded to meet the requirements. But the affiliation shuffles that happened every two years will no longer occur.
“This has been a long process, but we’re very grateful for the cooperation of all the minor league ownership groups and communities that will be part of this system,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s Executive Vice President, Baseball Economics & Operations. “We are excited to get started and are looking forward to the hard work of growing this sport in cities all around the countries.
“We are confident that this new system will result in significantly better pay and working conditions for minor league players as well as a better working relationship between minor league teams and Major League Baseball. A lot of these changes were long overdue, but we’re grateful that we have this opportunity to make things better.”
The announcement of the finalization of the PDLs brings some clarity to what has often been a contentious multi-year process. But there is still much that remains to be done before there can be minor league baseball in 2021.
With just two months until the season is slated to begin, 2021 appears set to be a transitory year. Some Minor League Baseball officials are being retained for this season to help aid the transition. MLB is in the process of hiring regional supervisors who will fill the roles previously handled by league offices.
Kurt Hunzeker, the one-time MiLB Vice President of Marketing and Strategy, has been hired by MLB to be MLB’s VP of Minor League Business Operations. He will be working with a business affairs committee of minor league owners on prioritizing strategies for sponsorships, ticketing initiatives, digital rights and other national sales of the minor leagues.
Even the name of the minors is in transition. MLB is expected to attempt to sell branding rights, much like the NBA has the Gatorade-sponsored G League. For now, MLB has been calling the minors its player development system.
League names will also not necessarily carry over to the new system, although some leagues have offered to convey their marks and brands to MLB. For now, MLB has been referring to the leagues by geographic designations. It is Triple-A East and Triple-A West, not the Pacific Coast League and the International League.
Now that the 120 PDLs have been signed, MLB is expected to announce the 2021 schedules next week. They are expected to announce start dates for Triple-A games beginning in early April, while Double-A and Class A leagues will be set to begin on May 4. Because of social distancing concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of minor leaguers will have to wait until after MLB spring training ends to begin their spring training.
While getting schedules will be an important and long-anticipated step toward the 2021 minor league season, those dates could best be described as being written with a dry-erase marker. All those dates are subject to change and there are plenty of as-yet-unknowable factors that will affect the start date of the minor league season.
MLB is in the process of working out health and safety rules for the minor leagues, much like the health and safety rules that it and the Major League Baseball Players Association recently agreed to for MLB. For the minor leagues, MLB will set those rules unilaterally, as there is no union for minor league players.
Playing rules will also have to be set. In 2020, the Florida State League was set to use an automated ball-strike system (roboumps). A new pickoff rule that required pitchers to step off the rubber before throwing to a base was set to be used in Class A and below. Decisions on that and other rules tweaks have not yet been finalized for 2021.
Triple-A will continue to use the MLB ball, just like it did in 2019. Double-A and below will continue to use the minor league ball. All leagues will use their remaining inventory of balls that are stamped with league names and the league presidents signatures before moving to a ball with a 2021 stamp. Since the 2020 season was suspended right before the season began, many teams have an abundant supply of 2020 balls to use for the 2021 season (some teams were asked to send their balls back to the MLB club in 2020).
Umpire assignments will once again be handled through Minor League Baseball Umpire Development. The reduced number of teams will likely cause issues for young umpires. Every year, umpires are hired out of the umpiring schools to fill the lowest levels of the minors. The umpires from those levels with the best grades are then promoted to higher levels for upcoming seasons. Much like players, umpires work their way up the ladder with the best eventually jumping from Triple-A to the majors.
All of the newly hired umpires for 2020 never got a chance to work a game, as the entire season was wiped out by the pandemic. With the elimination of short season and rookie ball levels (other than the Arizona and Gulf Coast Leagues), the number of umpire crews needed to staff the affiliated minor leagues will be significantly smaller in 2021 than it was in 2020. That means a potential numbers crunch with more qualified umpires than spots to assign them to. It also makes it likely that there will be no spots in affiliated ball for recently-hired umpires.
Some of that surplus could end up meaning that umpires slated to work rookie ball could end up as crews working for some partner and newly-established MLB-affiliated summer wood bat leagues, but it is yet another issue that will need to be resolved in the upcoming months.
While much remains to be resolved, for minor league teams, today does bring a finality to a long, difficult and often contentious process. A number of minor league teams had expressed their discomfort with some of the economic terms of the MLB-run system, others said they were worried by the amount of control MLB will have over every aspect of the minor leagues going forward. But in the end, all 120 teams decided that the options of working within an MLB-run system were superior to the options of going it their own way.
And so with that the shape of the minor leagues has changed forever.